Humans possess the innate need to simplify and categorize the complexities of human identity. For the purposes of this paper, fingerprinting, DNA typing and gene mapping are modern day manifestations of the idea that identity is located on the skin and in the blood. These methods of determining one’s character, propensities, and abilities based on physical markers are predicated on the notion that identity can be read in the body. While the social implications of locating racial identity in the body are apparent if not obvious, the social implications of centering identity in the body are not as evident when it comes to the topic of sexual orientation.
The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain and outside sources show that locating identity in the body transforms society into a hierarchy of dominant groups and oppressed groups. Thus, by locating identity in the body and using the evidence of scientific data to confirm this identity, the dominant groups within society maintain their control. This paper will examine the social construction of race and the use of science in locating identity in the body during the antebellum South through the lens of dominant and oppressive groups in Pudd’nhead Wilson. In comparison, it will also examine the social implications of sexuality and the use of science in locating this identity in the body during the 20th century. It will be shown that this statement is true of both societies in which race was the central issue and modern societies that view gay marriage as the civil rights fight of the decade.
Numerous scholars have debated Twain’s satire of the economic and legal institution of slavery and whether Twain upholds the notion that identity is located in the body (Gillman and Robinson 137). Unfortunately, the critique barely passes the satirical. Scholars fail to critique the idea that identity is located in the body and the role that science plays in upholding this idea.
For example, Roxy’s interaction with ‘Tom’ highlights society’s adherence that identity is situated in the body. Roxy, the mother of ‘Tom,’ is only one-sixteenth black, making her son only one out of thirty-two parts black. When Roxy is alerted to her son’s cowardly refusal to duel Luigi Capello, she correlates this cowardly part of his identity to his black lineage, commenting “dat po’ little one part is yo’ soul” and that it is enough to “paint his soul” (Twain 88-89). The behavior of ‘Tom’ is confined to his black race and any debate of his behavior being a result of his upbringing is omitted. This is a clear example of how identity was located in the body during the antebellum South.
Furthermore, this example indicates that scientific knowledge and methods maintained the stratification of society. The categorization of individuals during the antebellum South is based on the identity in the body, and not only in the skin. The characters in the novel are aware of the fact that skin can betray one’s identity. To combat this limitation of locating identity in the skin, knowledge of genetics is utilized. In a society based on identity in the skin, individuals such as Roxy and ‘Tom’ would go undetected. Not only is identity in the body, but racial identity, as portrayed in Pudd’nhead Wilson, is found in the blood. Skin color only helps to maintain the separation of the races. But the separation of people based on genetics, or their racial proportions, ensures that the inferior races—and the inferior traits that they carry—do not penetrate into the higher realms of society. The scientific knowledge of genetics empowers the dominant groups and oppresses the marginalized groups.
Secondly, the closing scenes of Pudd’nhead Wilson, when ‘Tom’ is found to be the murderer through Wilson’s collection of fingerprints, illustrate the power of science in affirming the stratification of a society based on identity in the body. As noted previously with Roxy, it is not only the actions in the novel that reveal adherence to the notion that identity, and subsequently character, are properties of the body, but the words of the characters also reveal this truth. Notably, as Wilson makes his statement to the court, he presents the general gist of fingerprints. He states that they are “physical marks which do not change their character” (Twain 136). The use of the word character is striking and immediately stands out in the surrounding debates. This word seems to suggest that one’s character—which is based on identity in the body, on their race—can be read and sorted through the use of a scientific method: fingerprinting. When taken by itself, this singular word does not suggest that dominant groups use the location of identity in the body and science to retain their position in society. But, the comments do not stop there. Pembroke Howard’s comments and the crucial ending of the story bolster the argument.
Furthermore, Pembroke Howard, in the presentation of his case against Luigi and Angelo Capello, says that the crime was committed by the “blackest of heart and the cowardliest of hands” (Twain 126). Howard’s statement relates to Roxy’s comments about ‘Tom’ earlier in the novel. It defends the notion that identity was located in the body during the antebellum South, and thus dominant groups used this idea to separate and categorize the races, both on the presence of darker skin and the presence of a notion of genetically inherited racial characteristics. “The blackest of hearts” suggests that race does not stop at the color of the skin. The skin can deceive and is not an affect method of characterization, classification, or separation as is the case with ‘Tom’. Genetic knowledge is necessary to ensure separation. Secondly, Pembroke Howard states that the hands that committed the crime are the “cowardliest of hands.” This description grounds the notion of personality and character in a part of the body, the hands, explicitly confirming the notion that identity is located in the body. Lastly, the science of fingerprinting is used to uncover and unveil the cowardly hands that belong to ‘Tom,’ the slave that went undetected in white society. Here, science is used to classify people and to restore order in society, maintaining the dominance that whites had over society during the antebellum South. This ordering of society and the dominance over society is exemplified at the end of the novel when ‘Tom’ is sold down the river despite his mother’s best attempt to pass him off as white, and ‘Chambers’ is unsuccessfully integrated into society due to his Black mannerisms (Twain 144).
In essence, the idea the identity is located in the body and in the blood was a large portion of ideology during the antebellum South. Multiple characters in Pudd’nhead Wilson such as Roxy, Wilson, and Pembroke Howard verbalize that this ideology led to the classification of people into a dominant group and a submissive group. Hence, the dominant groups used the knowledge of genetics and the science of fingerprinting to maintain control of society and ensure separation.
As stated, the consequences of connecting identity in the body with racial characteristics and behavior are apparent. However, the implications of connecting identity in the body with human sexuality—the current civil rights issue of the day—are not as obvious. By locating identity in the body, the dominant groups of society once again used science to corroborate the idea that one’s biology, and therefore, key aspects of one’s character can be read, resulting in the separation of society into dominant and marginalized groups.
Since the Stonewall Riots of the 1960s and even prior, the argument over homosexuality has since been an argument of nature versus nurture. Whereas black Africans and black Americans in the antebellum South were viewed as chattel, deviant sexualities were viewed as abnormalities since these sexualities cut across racial lines. Similar to the dominant groups during the antebellum South, the dominant heteronormative culture of the mid-20th century also used science to justify the classification of individuals and separation of homosexuals from mainstream society. For instance, the term “sexual deviant”—at that point in time referring to individuals with homosexual tendencies—was a diagnosable disorder contained within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 (Haggerty 680-681). Homosexuality was viewed and confirmed by scientific institutions as the product of a development arrest, an arrest that could be treated and cured. Thus, the mechanisms and methods by which the white dominant society justified the oppression of blacks are similar to the way in which gay and lesbians were oppressed by dominant heteronormative society. Homosexuals were separated from society and viewed as abnormalities of normal heterosexual behavior. The following statement published in the Gay Histories and Culture Encyclopedia illustrates best the social implications of locating identity in the body:
“the pervert has been religiously condemned, legally punished, and medically diagnosed, all of which serve as mechanisms for social control and regulation of individual behavior. Thus, through labeling deviance…nonconforming individual behaviors and beliefs can be restricted, discouraged, eliminated, and punished” (Haggerty 680).
Given the above points, society used science to justify locating identity in the body to portray homosexuality as a deviance of heterosexuality and to oppress the homosexual population. Furthermore, since Dean Hamer’s paper “A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation” was published in the 1993 journal Science, scientists have been waiting for the discovery of the “gay gene,” the supposed gene that determines one’s sexuality. In brief, his article deemed that homosexuality was not a choice, that it was just as biologically determined as eye or hair color (Hamer 1993). However, the gay community, all too aware of society’s constant and still occurring assault on the gay community, realized the far-reaching implications of the discovery of such a gene and the classification of individuals into sexual categories based on DNA typing and gene mapping. Others have been concerned that the discovery of a gay gene would be used as a tool of oppression by “a repressive, eugenically inclined majority” (Assault on Gay America). Altogether, society during the mid-20th century used science—although unverified and unproven—in the form of genetics and psychological diagnoses and treatments to maintain their hegemonic control on society, thus justifying the oppression of the gay community.In conclusion, the notion that identity is located in the body is used to separate groups while the dominant groups in society are able to maintain control of the hierarchy. In the antebellum South, the dominant group in society, as exemplified through the novel
In conclusion, the notion that identity is located in the body is used to separate groups while the dominant groups in society are able to maintain control of the hierarchy. In the antebellum South, the dominant group in society, as exemplified through the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, used the concepts of science to control society and to maintain their status. Similarly, the anti-gay sentiment of the mid-20th century was also fueled by the notion that science could differentiate heterosexuals and homosexuals using DNA typing and gene mapping. Thus, the social implications of both of these similar phenomena—one an example based on the archaic social institution of slavery and the other based on the modern day discussion of sexuality—explicate how locating identity in the body serves to simplify human nature and separate society into dominant groups and marginalized groups based on biological differences. The social implications of locating identity in the body reveal that not all human nature can be reduced to a science, thus other social and cultural factors come into play. Although it is human nature to simplify and classify, to separate-seeming opposites, this innate compulsion ultimately results in the loss of dignity, as humans are transformed from complex subjects into objects that can be read with the right scientific equipment.
Assault on Gay America. 2014. ‘The “Gay Gene” Debate’. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/genetics/.
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